Acclaimed actress-playwright Anna Deavere Smith sits down with Bill Moyers to discuss her one-woman play Let Me Down Easy and how it gives voice to questions of life and death, sickness and healthcare.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.
There’s a happening here in New York you just wish could be a command performance for everyone debating health care reform.
Night after night, and at three matinees a week, people have been filling off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre for a one-woman performance of true stories about hope and dignity when life is challenged.
FEMALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: It moves me so much…
FEMALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #2: It’s awesome. She’s really tremendous…
BILL MOYERS: Ninety minutes later, the rave reviews echo praise from critics in the press.
FEMALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #3: Thought-provoking and engaging…
FEMALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #4: So moving, so beautiful.
MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: She really knows how to listen to people, and she heard what they were saying.
FEMALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #5: I hope she does this for a long time and I hope it goes on the road.
BILL MOYERS: That’s Anna Deavere Smith they’re talking about — the star of the show, and no stranger to many of us.
She was the outspoken National Security Adviser, Nancy McNally, in THE WEST WING.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as NANCY MCNALLY: Look at the pictures, Mr. Vice President. I think they found him.
BILL MOYERS: She’s currently the tough head honcho in Showtime’s NURSE JACKIE.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as GLORIA AKALITUS: I want you and Zoey in my office in five minutes.
BILL MOYERS: Lucky you if you caught the performance that brought her first acclaim: FIRES IN THE MIRROR, her gutsy take on violence between Jews and Blacks in Brooklyn.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as AL SHARPTON: We’re dealing with a double standard!
BILL MOYERS: She followed with TWILIGHT, about the riots that erupted when Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as ELAINE YOUNG: On the day of the riots we were sitting safe here and sound in Beverly Hills.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as MAXINE WATERS: Had an insurrection in this city before?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as MRS. YOUNG-SOON HAN: Where do I find the justice?
BILL MOYERS: And now she’s receiving standing ovations for LET ME DOWN EASY. A play she wrote after interviewing 300 people on three continents. She chose twenty of them to embody on stage…
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as BRENT WILLIAMS: And they didn’t even knock me out….
BILL MOYERS: From a rodeo bull rider and a Buddhist monk to famed cyclist Lance Armstrong…
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as LANCE ARMSTRONG: One guy’s five time second in the Tour de France.
BILL MOYERS: And the late governor of Texas, Ann Richards.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as ANN RICHARDS: I don’t think I have any Republicans on my team.
BILL MOYERS: Their actual words became her text, as she witnesses to the realities often ignored in the bitter and partisan debate over medical care on the floor of Congress.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as JOEL SIEGEL: Let me down easy.
BILL MOYERS: Anna Deavere Smith, welcome to the Journal.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Great to be here.
BILL MOYERS: How did this project begin?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I was invited to come to the Yale School of Medicine by a very imaginative I think, doctor named Ralph Horwitz, who was then the head of internal medicine there. And he asked me to come there and interview doctors and patients. And then to present characters at Medical Grand Rounds, which is a kind of fuddy-duddyish assemblage of doctors, I would imagine often listening to other scientists and doctors. I was pretty intimidated. But I went and I was so drawn in to the stories of the patients and so excited that in those cases of those interviews I really only had to ask one question. And I pretty much started every interview with just turning on my tape recorder and saying, “What happened to you?” And then people were singing songs, sharing their prayers. Literally one lady just burst into prayer. One man’s granddaughter came in and read to me from her grandfather’s journal — from her journal when her grandfather was having a heart transplant. And so it just really grabbed me. And then over the course of the next eight years I did a lot of other things. But I’d constantly keep sort of going back to this idea of talking to people about their bodies in a variety of arenas. Both arenas where the body was threatened and arenas where the body was able to thrive.
BILL MOYERS: Why did the doctors at the Yale Medicine — School of Medicine want you to talk to a patient what was —
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Well, the —
BILL MOYERS: What were they after?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I, at the time, Dr. Horwitz, who’s now head of medicine at Stanford, was interested in looking at the extent to which doctors can listen or not. And he was also very concerned about where healthcare was going because so much of it was in the marketplace. He was also concerned about what was going on in terms of caring and healing in medicine, given the fact that there was, there’s so much technology that we’ve all been the product of the 15 minute session with our doctor. And knowing I would say, I’m speaking for him, that the science is an incredible part of our great achievement. And it’s necessary. But I think looking for a way to weave together a greater interest in, a greater capacity for caring with all of the science.
BILL MOYERS: As you made those rounds, what did you hear?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I heard pretty incredible stories. There’s only one person from that original project, still in “Let Me Down Easy “and that’s Ruth Katz, who had her records lost, in the hospital.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s listen to Ruth Katz.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as RUTH KATZ: I have come to learn enough about the health care system that while I think that doctors and nurses and institutions even as wonderful as Yale is, make mistakes, have their attention diverted to other important tasks and can’t be there for you in every way that you want them to be there.
As much faith as you have in this place every time they gave me chemotherapy I had a friend there with me. To make sure that the bag with that stuff in there that they were about to pump into me was exactly what I was supposed to get. No more. And the right stuff.
I will also tell you that on the last drug, well, throughout the protocol, if your temperature went above, a hundred and two, no, I’m sorry, a hundred and one point two, um they wanted you to call. And, if it went high enough, they wanted you to come in, you know, to make sure nothing was wrong. Mine, at one point, had gone up to a hundred and two. And they admit you immediately to the oncology unit.
And an oncology fellow, who, which is not one of our full-time faculty, but someone who’s in training here specializing in oncology, came into my room.
“I want to apologize, but we can’t find your records. Could you tell me what kind of cancer you have?”
I said, “This is appalling.” And he said, “No, hey, it’s not just you. It happens here quite a bit!” I said, “I’m appalled for every patient who comes on this unit.” And I had to go through from like the beginning, my whole story!
Well eventually, I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you as an aside. Eventually, I knew, I could tell by his question, that he was going to get to the question of “Do you work?” And I have never advertised my position around here, I just want to be treated like everybody else. And so, you know, he said, “Do you work?” You know about midway through his questions, and I said, “I do.” And he said, “Are you working full time?” And I said, “I am.” And he said, “Where are you working?” I said, “I’m Associate Dean at the Medical School.” Now he looks up, “At this medical school?” I said, “At the Yale School of Medicine.” He found my files within a half an hour.
BILL MOYERS: Ouch. The moment they learned she’s someone important they find the file?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: It — politics can even determine how we’re treated?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Right. And money.
BILL MOYERS: And money.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Money. Politics, position. You know, like so many other things in our culture and in other cultures in the world, it’s who you know and what you have.
BILL MOYERS: You said in your book “Talk to Me” that acting is about as far from lying, I’m paraphrasing. Acting is about as far from lying as anything can ever be separated, right?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Definitely.
BILL MOYERS: Well, who —
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Definitely.
BILL MOYERS: Talk to me about that. What, acting is pretense. It’s not lying, I know that. But why is acting so far from lying?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Because of the vulnerability of the actor. That, if you think about it, you know, we are going in there and putting our identity for rent. Not for sale. For rent. But we’re giving it up for brief periods of time. And we are trained to feel deeply for an imagined other. And so that’s not lying. That is, that is coming from, although we’re saying other words and we’re putting ourselves in imagined circumstances and we’re making up stories or we’re inhabiting stories that other people made up, it’s not lying. It is in pursuit of another kind of truth.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as BRENT WILLIAMS: Well I got hung up by a bull. It wasn’t a mean bull, but he weighed over a ton. And when I hit the ground I was on my side —
BILL MOYERS: What about Brent Williams? The night we were there he was clearly the audience’s favorite. What about him?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Well, I just love Brent. He’s a bull rider. I met him at a wedding in Sun Valley. Of a young girl who I knew pretty much before she was born that, the daughter of a dear friend of mine from college, and Brent walked into this rehearsal dinner. And I just couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He’s so charismatic. And he ended up sitting across from me. And I said, “What do you do for a living?” And he said, “I’m a bull rider.” And because it was Sun Valley I thought it had to do with money. Something to do with the market. I couldn’t believe he was really talking about riding bulls. But on the basis of that conversation with him I ended up going out and going around to the rodeos with him. I went to the national rodeo finals at, in Las Vegas. Stuff I’d never, ever — hung out with the cowboys. You know, stuff I never would have done.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ride a bull?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I never ride, I don’t, no, I didn’t go, but he I think, you know, he’s a Republican. Proud of it. Right wing. And yet I think he’s carrying, you know, in his language a truth that people respond to. A truth about, the fact that, you know, what we have to pay for medicine.
BILL MOYERS: There was a kind of gasp in the audience the night that we were there when we learned that he had been admitted to a military hospital and got a flat rate that is not available to anyone else. I mean is that a message for Washington do you think?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I think so. Yeah. I mean he says, I think we need to have that. We need to have a situation where you pay a flat rate. Doesn’t matter what it is. You get your, you pay a certain amount of money and they take care of you for that certain amount of money. He puts that forward.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s listen to Brent Williams.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as BRENT WILLIAMS: Then they took me to Brooke Army Medical Hospital and they made me piss in a cup and I pissed straight red blood.
And they was going to take my kidney out.
And I told them, you know I’m still going to ride bulls, with just one kidney and I’d rather have two kidneys than one. And so they, they tried a new deal where they put a stent in there. And they saved half my kidney so I have one and a half kidneys, instead of one.
I’m very grateful of those doctors. I mean them doctors, I mean they, that just cost me a flat rate, I paid them a flat rate, them doctors, I mean they weren’t trying to rape me, you know, to make more money to pay their Mercedes Benz bills or whatever they got. And I don’t think them doctors even drive them big fancy sports cars like the other doctors do.
You know cost me twelve hundred bucks.
Flat rate, didn’t matter, if I, you know, went to the ICU, didn’t matter if they did a CAT scans, or whatever they did to me, didn’t change when I was in the ICU for six days, it didn’t change. Didn’t get no doctor bills, or nothing. You know, flat rate, everybody pays a flat rate, it doesn’t matter what they get. And I we need to go to a deal like that.
And I think, and I think that I had better doctors there, doctors who really want to be doctors instead of these pricks these days that just, you know, go to college and spend all their parents’ money going to college and come out and make a killing, they don’t really give a [no audio]. You show me a poor doctor, and I’ll kiss his ass. And I, you know, and I think, we’ll see what doctors really want to be doctors when there’s not as much money in it.
And then you’ll get your good doctors. But, and I feel like, and they told me, you know, if I had gone to any other hospital in San Antone, they would just have took my kidney out.
Yeah, I have insurance, you know for the whole family, Blue Cross of Idaho. I pay two hundred sixty dollars a month, seventy-five hundred dollars deductible, but we don’t ever meet that, I mean, it’s just, you know, paying all this, you’ve got to pay seventy-five hundred dollars for them to meet it.
They’re just trying to rape us. They, it’s just like all the people that got the money. They rape the poor, and then they rape the middle class, until the middle class becomes poor. And then they’re just going to start raping the rich. And, you know, and they’re going to break the country I think.
But I’m an optimist. Yeah, basically I’m an optimist.
Because you know, when, when you’re riding a bull and you do good and you’re riding him, I mean, it’s just you’re feeling like, you know, like there ain’t nothing in the world that could, you know, beat you up or nothing like that, ’cause there’s just so much power.
Because if you think about it we shouldn’t be able to stay on the back of bucking bull, because we weigh like a hundred and fifty pounds. Bull weighs like over two thousand pounds. I think what keeps you on top of that bull is just determination.
BILL MOYERS: Determination. There’s more than that, but I mean I don’t know. I’ve never ridden a bull. What did you think he could tell your audience? I mean we don’t ride bulls here in New York. And that audience-
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Every night though finds him fascinating.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I think because it, because of this whole idea of against the odds. You know, he struts out there and starts talking about how a bull stepped on his back and broke four ribs. And that there was a doctor sitting in the front row who told him, “I think you may have ruptured your spleen or your kidney. You have got to go to the hospital.” He said, “I’m all right. I just broke some ribs.” You know, I think they respond to the toughness. On the other hand, when he’s in this medical crisis that he was able to get the help he needed. And then he, you know, has a pretty harsh critique with language I can’t say on the air about the insurance companies. And I think they respond to that. And I also think they respond to his optimism. To his idea that, you know, we have got to stay on top of the bucking bull. And it’s determination that does it. I think people like that idea that there is, that you can win.
BILL MOYERS: Did the two of you become friends?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Very good friends.
BILL MOYERS: How is his health now? Did he recover?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Well, you know, they pride themselves on those injuries. Those guys.
BILL MOYERS: Is he back on the bull?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: He’s not riding anymore. He had to retire. Not because of that. I think the thing that did him in ultimately was a broken collarbone.
BILL MOYERS: I have to confess that there is no way this small screen of television can do justice to the power of what happens on your stage. I mean you took, you and your twenty characters took a houseful of strangers when I was there the other night and turned them into an intimate community. How does that happen?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I suppose the intimacy comes from, you know, the audience having a shared experience. And maybe it’s that some of the themes in the play really hit home for people. I mean there’s a boxer in this show who gets knocked out and wakes up and finds out that he’s been in a coma for four days. And he’s told that he won’t be able to fight again. And even as I’ve done this particular material for several years now, every night I’m in there in pursuit of the spooky truth of being told that you can never, ever again do something that you so love. And I think that is, must be like also knowing that you could never be in touch with something or someone that you love. That you’re leaving things. And that’s a profound truth. That he’s sharing with me through his experience. And I’m trying to touch that and understand that. I can never really have his experience. I can only go out there every night and try the touch the truth of the experiences of the twenty people who are there.
BILL MOYERS: Does it change from night to night? That is does, one evening does a particular character speak to you in a different way from the night before?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: That’s right. I never know when somebody’s going to knock on the door of my own unconscious in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated. And also, we never know the full meaning of a given word. So it could be that I realize a new meaning of the word? Or maybe that day I’ve decided to look at a word differently. For example, there’s a woman in the play who was a doctor, is a doctor and was working at Charity Hospital, which was at the time a public hospital, it’s now closed down, in New Orleans, right after Katrina. And she talks about her patients being abandoned. And yesterday when I was working I thought, “I wonder what that word really comes from. Abandoned.” And the etymology that I saw leads me to see that abandoned at one point meant to take someone out of your jurisdiction and put it in another. Put that person in another place. And what she’s talking about is how the government let them down. And that’s kind of what you could say. Okay, so to government said, “You know what? You’re not under our realm anymore. You just, you go there.”
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as DR. KIERSTA KURTZ-BURKE: One of my patients said to me — he had lost his grandmother and his aunt, he’s from the Ninth Ward, family had gotten out, I mean the water came up in their house ten feet an hour. And he was, you know, he had heard through family members that he had lost his grandmother and his aunt, so he was just really grieving. And, pretty young guy, like in his forties. And he had a spinal cord injury and so he was pretty immobile, like most of my patients, very immobile. And I remember I just came in and I was sitting by his bedside, now it’s like, by now it’s one hundred and six degrees, there are no lights, we’re reduced to feeding people very small portions, and I tried to keep a kind of stiff upper lip in the beginning, you know, “Hey, we’re going to get out of here, don’t worry about it, blah, blah, blah.”
But I think we were just all so exhausted and I remember sitting by his bedside and he said to me, he said “Doctor K, have the patients in the private hospitals gotten out?” I said, “You know what, they have.” He said, “Do you think we’re going to get out today?” It’d started going on five days, and I said, “Well I look outside and I see the sun is setting and now they made a lot of promises about coming but I see the sun is setting and I don’t know, we may be here another night.” And I said, “I think we better be prepared for that.” And I said, “I don’t know, we might be here more than one night.” And he said, “Well do you think that they are going to eventually come for us?” And I said, “I don’t know,” I said, “I just don’t know.”
And that made me feel so crappy, and ashamed a little bit? Like ashamed not to be able to do for people what I wanted to do which is to get them the hell out of here and to a safe place.
And, I mean, my patients at Charity Hospital, they’re not dumb. The nurses at Charity Hospital, they’re not dumb. They knew, they knew we were going to be the last ones out. They knew that the patients in the private hospitals had private helicopters and it wasn’t a shock to people. And the fact that it wasn’t a shock to people was so shocking to me.
And, you just see the desperation of being poor in this country, and in some ways the distrust, I mean the deep down distrust you know, that this is not the first time that this has happened to people.
I’m privileged. This is the first time that I have ever been [no audio] abandoned, by my government. But it wasn’t the first time for the nurses or the other people that worked at Charity or for my patients at Charity Hospital.
And I have a lot of history with the people on the floor, I have a lot of history with the nurses. A lot of them know me since I’m a medical student and a hundred percent, ninety percent of the nurses on the floor are African-American. And the African-American nurses and the other people who work at Charity Hospital said two things to me early on, they said “One, they opened the levees on us,” meaning that they had flooded the poor areas of Orleans Parish to spare the other parts.
And two “they said to me early on, they’re not going to come get us.” And here I am coming from my privileged position, “What do you mean they’re not going to come and get us?” Of course they were going to come and get us. FEMA knew we were here, we were in constant contact with FEMA.
But my patients really did sense. And that part made me ashamed. And it’s just, I just thought, well, this is, this is what it must be like your whole life, just this feeling that we have to do for ourselves, because nobody is going to come and get us. Just, that feeling of being abandoned. That was all new for me, being abandoned. But for my patients and for the people that work at Charity Hospital, it was just one more thing. And they just went about their business. Every nurse on that floor worked for six days. In that heat, with no power, with a flashlight, they never missed a vital sign. They never missed a urine output, they never missed a trick. And with a heavy sense of resignation.
And so that hole that I had always tried, you know, “Hey, you’re here at Charity, don’t worry about it, we’re going to give you the best possible care.”
Well, you know what? We are going to give you the best possible care. But we can’t make the government and FEMA come and get us.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that description of the government’s failure to come and get those poor people to help them at the height of the Katrina disaster. I’ve never seen, read or heard anything that more immediately portrays the great inequalities in this country and I walked out of there thinking, “How do we let that happen when we talk about the greatest nation on Earth.” You know? How do you wrestle with that?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Well, I think it’s at the crux of something about this country and who we are and I think that we are constantly in a tango about it. And different eras of history lead us to different resolutions about that. I mean I came of age in the ’60s. And it was lucky for me that there were decisions made when I was growing up about who gets to get educated and where, or I wouldn’t but here. I mean we, I even think of our President as a product of, I think of him as the education President. Somebody who came of age and was able to have friends who came of age who had the advantage of a different kind of education than my parents’ generation had. My parents had a fine education, but the doors opened up in a way that allowed blacks and whites to learn together, and therefore learn things about each other.
BILL MOYERS: This was in Baltimore?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Baltimore, Maryland.
BILL MOYERS: Segregated? Right?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Pretty much. For-
BILL MOYERS: Pretty much.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: For all —
BILL MOYERS: Segregated?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: — intents and purposes. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Is that when you began to listen other people so acutely?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I think as a kid I always liked to listen to people. I loved hearing stories. There was a woman next door who weighed over 400 pounds, so she couldn’t move very far. And she used to have me come over the porch and scratch her back or go down the street and buy her some fat back. And I would love to —
BILL MOYERS: Fat back is?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Fat back is like a piece of fat. Like bacon but fatter than bacon. She — that was one of her staple foods. And I would go and, listen to her tell stories. Sometimes over and over again. And I loved hearing my maternal grandmother talk and my paternal grandfather talk. And he’s the one who gave me my method of doing theater, inadvertently. I think he probably expected me to become a teacher or an administrator in schools. But he said to me as a child, “If you say a word often enough it becomes you.” And that’s the simple technique that I use in my, what I call pursuit of American character. Trying to learn as much as I can about this country by getting people to talk to me and then saying their words over and over again until I begin to feel something about where they’re coming from.
BILL MOYERS: More than one critic has said no one documents American life the way you do. Is it because you listen?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: It’s because I listen, but also because I wear the words. I think about what I’m doing as putting myself in other people’s words the way you think about putting yourself in other people’s shoes. And I just really love that process. And I think one of the ways I taught myself to listen. Was that, I knew I wanted to get people to, in the course of an hour, break up certain rhythmic patterns that I had already identified in their speech while they were listening. For example, if somebody was to say everything going up. You know? I went to the store and I was looking for aspirin. You know, that kind of talking which has become popular. I’d be waiting for the time that they would stop doing that. And so years ago I met a linguist at a cocktail party and I told her that’s what I was trying other do. This is back in like 1979, 1980. And she said, “I’ll give you three questions that will guarantee that that will happen. That they’ll break the patterns.” And the questions were have you ever come close to death? Have you ever been accused of something that you didn’t do? Do you know the circumstances of your birth? So the first one of these plays that I made based on interviews I would talk to people about whatever they wanted to talk about. This, the lifeguard at the Y on 63rd street. A woman who ran a shop, a hairdresser. And I’d let them talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. And at a certain point I’d ask those questions. And I listened. And lo and behold, when I asked those questions there’d be greater variety in the way that they were expressing themselves.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, I’m curious, I’m sure you’ve been following the healthcare debate —
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Sure.
BILL MOYERS: — in Washington this fall, all the talking about bending the cost curve, death panels, triggers, public options. How does that official language in Washington compare or contrast to what you heard from these people?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I think that official language is exactly what it is. It’s official language. And it is limited in terms of how much it really allows us to hear the truth and how much it really allows us to get close to the real dilemma. And it makes me think about the great philosopher Maxine Greene, the philosopher of education and art in education, who talks about how art comes in where the official language falls apart. So when I hear the official language it makes me suppose that this is a time when we need a lot more art that’s not going to have answers that are in black and white.
BILL MOYERS: But in the meantime, if you go to Washington, the language of politics has become a tribal dialect in which they speak for each other. And the press and the politicians in Washington, they play a wink-wink game. They know the other is speaking to conceal, not to reveal. And you get this huge disconnect between what you found and heard and recorded and portray and what happens in, and the way they talk in Washington.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I think that’s absolutely right. And you’ve said two really important words. The words conceal and reveal. And it has to do I think also with what, the politicians are talking to the media, but the media’s in the business of trying to find and catch the politicians saying the, quote unquote, “wrong” thing. Right? So this goes back a long time. It was Jefferson, or a historian of Jefferson told me that Thomas Jefferson, would never be found in verbal undress. Well, that was a long time ago. And in some ways the most effective politicians are the ones who have the best verbal clothes that they manipulate the best way. And there is a gap between that type of clothing and where people walk and where people live. I’m told that, I don’t know if this is true, but it’s something that animates my work. Is that Whitman and Lincoln never actually met. You know, they kind of passed on the street.
BILL MOYERS: They were in the same town together and I read somewhere that he saw Lincoln 22 or 23 times. They never exchanged a word.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: That might have been a good thing because —
BILL MOYERS: Why?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Whitman was doing another kind of work for the country at that time. Speaking a different song. And I think the politicians can sing to us but I respect, in a way, the limitation of their language. I mean I guess it’s a part of our culture that goes back as far as Jefferson, that they have to be so careful about what they say. My only desire would then be that we would find other places in our culture to work out our differences.
BILL MOYERS: Tell us about the title, “Let Me Down Easy.”
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: It came to me almost like out of a dream. Let me down easy. And then it turns out that there are a few songs called “Let Me Down Easy.”
BILL MOYERS: You didn’t sing them that night?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: No, I’m not a singer. I spare you that.
BILL MOYERS: But you do this, you do James Cone. And —
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I do.
BILL MOYERS: — and he talks about —
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Because I asked him the title. I asked him what the — I asked many of the people at the, in the course of interviewing many of them. I’d say the title of this play is going to be “Let Me Down Easy.” What does that mean to you?
BILL MOYERS: And James Cone, who’s been at this table, a marvelous theologian at Union —
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: — Theological Seminary here, what did he tell you?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: He said, “Well, I saw, those are words of a broken heart. And they could be interpreted as broken love. Let me down easy. I certainly heard it within that context. It’s about love broken. Don’t do it too harshly. Not too mean. Let it be easy. And it’s a combination of talking about love and talking about hurt from broken love. Broken heartedness. At the same time talking about hurt from what’s happening to you in society.” And then later I asked him if it could be about death and he says, “It could be. It could be related to death too. It could be about dying.”
BILL MOYERS: And what does it mean to you now?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I think “Let Me Down Easy” is about grace and kindness in a world that lacks that often. Not always. And a winner take all world, where we think about, you know, the people who, we don’t think about the people who are losing. We don’t think about the people who are abandoned by jobs or governments or lovers or mothers or fathers. And a call for that kind of grace and kindness and consideration and the metaphor I think of death as the ultimate form of loss, possibly, possibly in our greatest fear the ultimate form of abandonment. And that in this country we have a hard time looking at death and we have a hard time looking at loss and we have a hard time looking at losing. And I think that doesn’t help us be the most caring environment. Let me just tell you quickly —
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, sure.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: — you know that, when I was, I went to Washington to do my, what I thought was my last interview with Congressman Waxman. And I thought, “You know, on the way I should stop in Baltimore and talk to my Aunt Lorraine, who’s the only woman living on my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother had eight children. And while I and my assistant were waiting in the lobby to see my aunt in her apartment, a man, an older man but with a very good walk came down to the lobby with some medicine in his hand. And he couldn’t read it and he was crying. And we were just beside ourselves. You know, he was so, so in such despair. Could we help him? And of course we read what he needed to know. And he had to go give it to his wife. And he burst out crying as he turned his back on us. And he goes, “We’re just living too long in this country. We’re just living too long.” And as he hit the elevator button he said, “I need a gun.” And it just broke my heart that we, with all of our achievements, and all of the things that we can do, all of our technology and all of our money, that we feel morally that we can afford to leave people so alone.
BILL MOYERS: Why is it, when you walk home at night or take the subway home, what do you tell yourself about why it is we have such a difficult time dealing with the people who are on the margins or are going under. Why?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Perhaps because we have a fear that that could be us and we don’t want to be near it. I interviewed a doctor in a housing project in Chicago years ago, not related to this project, who was educated like I was. You know, African American woman who was the first in her family to go to maybe college. But, and, you know, I guess the expectation of this doctor would be that, you know, she’d be at Hopkins. And I must have asked her a question about that. And she said, “I stayed here because I’m not afraid of poor people. See, a lot of people are afraid of poor people because they think they’ll catch it like a disease.” Are we afraid of being poor? Are we afraid of losing? Are we afraid of being sick? Is that why we distance ourselves from those realities that are all around us?
BILL MOYERS: But the people in your play, the twenty characters, all seem to be connected to the life cycle and to an understanding of death as a part of the natural process. Am I wrong on that?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Well, thank you for answering the question that so many people ask me, which is-
BILL MOYERS: Which is?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: -how did you choose who to put in the play?
BILL MOYERS: By the way, how did you choose?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: That’s a great, that’s a really great way of saying it. What you just said is a great way of saying it. Is that these twenty people are very connected to the life cycle.
BILL MOYERS: This is about the body, this play. It is about what happens to our body, both when we age and when we get sick. Death robs us of our body. Have you come to think about your own body as a result of this experience? Do you feel vulnerable?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Yeah, but I think I began the project feeling vulnerable. I think I always have felt physically vulnerable, so that’s no news. I think that, I, the medicine I get from the play every night is about how to treat other people, one. And two, what Reverend Gomes says —
BILL MOYERS: Senior minister at Harvard?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Senior minister at Harvard. Great preacher. He talks about what he says in Mount Auburn Cemetery, you know, where, quote unquote, “everybody is buried.” When he says, you know, “Taking death seriously because it is ultimate and we have had something precious.”
BILL MOYERS: Now let’s listen to it. Let’s listen to you.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as REVEREND PETER GOMES: I had a parishioner dying in the hospital. And when it was clear that the person wasn’t going to recover, no more could be done, the doctors said, “Well, we’ll leave him to you now. To the clergy.” And they went off to fight another battle. Part of me was annoyed by that. I thought, “Cowards. Why don’t you stick around?” But frankly I was glad to see them go. There was a recognition, almost, that they had finished their function, but we hadn’t finished ours. Thank you, child. That their job was to keep the person here with all the science and the technology that we produce. And when it was clear that the person was going to go away, we were the ones to see that they went. Conductors, as it were.
And the doctors resent the fact that they’re leaving in defeat, because death is a defeat for them. So they have to go off and save somebody else. They don’t want to be around for the moment of expiration. One of the most important things that you can do is to be with someone when they die. And the doctors don’t like it, so off they go.
My work is to make the movement from this life to the next one as graceful and as easy as possible. Leaving is not like that. Like pulling a switch. And I don’t know this from my own experience, obviously. But I think that one of the great fears that the dying have is that they’re leaving everything they know and they’re going into some terrible void. Doesn’t have to hurt, just nothingness. And one of the things that the minister or the priest can do is to say, “You are known. Not just by us here, but you’re surrounded by people who love you and know you. And you’re going to the one who created you, loves you and knows you.” So, “Go in peace.”
Well I don’t ever really say, “Relax.” But I do try to create the notion that we know what we’re talking about. And you’ll soon find out. And it’s a good thing.
And then the person leaves. And then the hard part is dealing with the people who are left around the bedside. Because inevitably there’s the sense that “We failed. We haven’t done what we’re supposed to do.”
And at the gravesite, I read the prayer book offers. “I am the resurrection and the life.” All that stuff. “Here on earth, have we no continuing place? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This is it folks.” Well, I don’t really say it that way. But I insist that the coffin be lowered away in the presence of everybody there. I insist that you see the coffin go – down – into the – ground. You – need – to – know – that – this – is – a – form – of – finality. And my little homily is something like, “All that is mortal about brother or sister is in this box. And it’s going into the ground. And we cast ashes and dirt into here reminding us that this is where it all came from. And we will not meet again under these circumstances. So cherish the moment.” I do say that. I say, “Cherish the moment.”
BILL MOYERS: I want to know what you’re experiencing at that moment when you’re doing it. What are you, what are you feeling?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Like the singers always say, part of it is technical. Is just, saying the words, “Speak the speech, I pray you.” Right? “Trippingly on the tongue.” And then I think about the meaning. And I think about what it means for the people who bury the dead or christen the babies or marry the people or sing at funerals and weddings and what it means to say those words over and over again. And, those kind of ceremonial words. And I think about the finality, particularly that image of, it’s going into the ground.
BILL MOYERS: Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: It’s done, I mean that movement to me of, you know, it’s going. Not that you’re going to stop it, you know. It’s going into the ground. And we will not meet again.
BILL MOYERS: Any set —
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Under these circumstances.
BILL MOYERS: Cherish that moment.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Cherish the moment.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that’s realistic? Do you — that’s very difficult to embrace?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: In some ways you could cherish some things. I remember from my father’s funeral that the minister kept using a metaphor about life of a prism. And I took that away like a cherished image. Or with my mother, when she died and my Aunt Lorraine, actually. When we all walked away from the grave, all the grandchildren and all of that, and my Aunt Lorraine sat by my mother’s grave and just wept and wept and wept. And I have that image in my mind. So I think, you know, what I enjoy so much in my life are moments and images that have meaning. Or that stick with me. That seem beautiful. Even if they are sad like that of Aunt Lorraine. Her sitting there in black alone at her sister’s grave is something that’s beautiful. So, yeah. That’s what I think about those real moments.
BILL MOYERS: So what have you learned from all this work you’ve done about the American character you’ve been pursuing for so long now?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I guess the, you know, when you’re 27 or 28, you say, “Oh, what I’m going to do for my life is have a project called “On the Road: A Search for American Character.” It’s kind of a very convenient thing, because you know you’ll never get there.
BILL MOYERS: But you set out to do it?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: But you set out to do it. And I’ve done many by the time any of my work was recognized, which was Fires in the Mirror, I’d already made 12. That was the 13th. And, what I’ve learned more about, I’ve learned more about the diversity of the country. And I’ve learned more about the beauty of the country. And the rich, rich texture of the country. That’s the best way I could say. Is I feel I’ve been able to touch so far and want to keep touching this really gorgeous piece of fabric. And digging my hands into it in different ways. And I never get tired of that.
BILL MOYERS: Anna Deavere Smith, it’s a wonderful work and I thank you for being here to talk to me.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Thank you for having me here, really, really.
This transcript was entered on May 15, 2015.